Review: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg


Title: The Middlesteins

Author: Jami Attenberg

Published: Serpent’s Tail March 2013

Status: Read from March 12 to 13, 2013 — I own a copy {Courtesy Allen & Unwin}

My Thoughts:

The Middlesteins is the story of a dysfunctional Jewish family in suburban America. While Edith eats her self to death, her daughter drinks, her son and his wife worries and her husband of forty years makes plans to leave her.

In this character driven novel, shifting perspectives gives the reader insight into the issues within the family that both have everything and nothing to do with Edie’s morbid obesity.

When her husband, Richard leaves Edie and files for divorce he is seen as callous and selfish for deserting his wife of forty years in such ill health. But as Richard’s ‘side’ is revealed we learn that the marriage died some time ago and Richard is convinced he has left to save himself;

“Was he a bold individual making a last grab at happiness? Or a coward who could not contend with fighting for his wife’s life? Was he merely soulless?”

Their daughter, Robin, is distracted by her own intimacy issues, content to allow her sister in law to manage most of her mother’s care. She despises Richard for leaving their mother and makes him the target of her anger and grief about her mother’s condition.

While Benny worries silently, losing his hair at a prodigious rate, his wife becomes obsessed with Edie’s weight and diabetes. Rachelle tries to enforce exercise and diet on Edie but when she is only marginally successful she turns the focus to her own family, strictly controlling the food intake of her husband and two children, Josh and Emily. her own fear of aging and mortality unseating her common sense.

As teenagers, Josh and Emily are only vaguely concerned by the family turmoil, especially as they are approaching their B’Nai Mitzvah and busy rehearsing a hip hop routine for their So You Think You Can Dance? themed gala. Emily is a little more sensitive to the problems but at just fourteen is ill equipped to make much sense of them.

Edie is only heard from rarely with brief reminiscences of her life at various stages. They reveal an awkward teenager, a lacklustre marriage, poor self esteem and her unhealthy relationship with food, an addiction she feels powerless to control. In the main, Attenberg manages to portray Edie as a woman who is flawed in the ways that any ordinary person is. Her morbid obesity adds complications but is not the defining element of who she is. Edith is a mother, a grandmother, a friend and even a lover even at 350 plus pounds.

The Middlesteins is quite a sombre tale though not without flashes of black humour. I did struggle to connect with parts of the story, partly I think because of the cultural disconnect (with the Jewish population accounting for half a percent of the total Australian population and most concentrated in major cities) I feel sure I am missing an essential frame of reference.

A wry observation of family dysfunction and failure in middle class America, The Middlesteins is modern, literary fiction. It is a fairly quick read but not one I found particularly memorable. That it is endorsed by Jonathan Franzen may be an indicator as to whether you will like it or not.

Available To Purchase

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Leeswammes
    Mar 16, 2013 @ 03:25:56

    This sounds like a fun book, but Franzen recommending it has nothing going for it in my mind… And you weren’t keen… Hmm, I don’t know now!



  2. rblerner2013
    Mar 16, 2013 @ 09:55:27

    Sounds like I have to read this one not too many books use my first name as a character – Rachelle



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